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What has being a WITSEC mentor given me? – Apart from the shoes

Shoe shopping

Yep, the shoes. Going shoe-shopping seems to be a recurring theme of WITSEC. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you are a woman, you need a lot of shoes. But in the context of a WITSEC mentoring relationship it all gets a lot more meaningful. If you are a WITSEC mentor, sometimes you get to teach young women to walk on high heels. Being an IT pro, you explain the theory (physics, balance and all) and demonstrate the practice, or even choose her first pair of slightly platform pumps for her. Then next day you get the hilarious texts about the incredible challenges of climbing stairs and the appreciative glances of colleagues, and the last message of the day about muscle strain, ending with a disbelieving question: "How do you do it every day?" As a bonus, you get to buy yourself some shoes in the process.

Looks are important. The other day you make her up for a photo shoot at the whim of the moment (last minute of course, no time to get prepared), then a few days later you rummage through your memory and your makeup bag to create a step-by-step documentation of the process – with materials meticulously identified by brand and colour code – to help her do it on her own. Yes, she has to appear business-like, so the clumsily applied girly black smudges around the eyes will not do.

Being a professional woman is hard in more than one ways. Being chic, buying shoes, clothes, bags, or sharing makeup tips are the fun part. (But only if you confidently know how to do it. Applying makeup for the first time in your life to look like a pro and win a court case as an expert witness, or wearing high heels for your first job interview is usually not fun at all.) You have to look the part, but you also have to have the brains.

Being a WITSEC mentor means that sometimes you get tough professional questions about firewalls, routers, databases, forensic tools, nail varnish or the meaning of life – and you just have to answer to the best of your knowledge. You try to drill down to your earliest memories of coding and explain the topic as clearly as possible. How do you explain what a variable is? You recall how it felt some ages ago to be a total novice, and you smile in the realisation that a lot of things have passed since then. You listen, understand, and maybe give career advice, sometimes to be ignored entirely. Then it turns out that you were right (maybe experience does help after all) and then you listen again and try to be consoling. All of this may happen 24/7, at the most unexpected times and places. Sometimes you get into your car and drive to an obscure part of town to lend a book on computer forensics to a girl who has just decided to start a new career overnight. Or you try to find a hacking book in your library that could be “an easy reading for beginners”, while you threaten the girl that you will disown any association with her, should she end up turning into a script kiddie.

Being a mentor means that you are available. You give your time and attention when needed, as needed. It is a great honour, and a great responsibility. Sometimes you need to let your mentee in on your feelings, fears, failures and personal losses to let her see life from your perspective. It’s not easy, but sometimes this is the only way to teach her the lessons she needs. Then again, sometimes it happens the other way round.

She wants to have coffee with you. Of course, you agree and make adjustments in your busy calendar to meet her in a few days. (The rest of the world gets appointments at least three weeks in advance.) You are sitting, stirring the cream in your coffee and listening to her story while you need to concentrate more and more on your facial expression and the steady movement of the spoon. You probe very gently, ask subtle questions. Thank goodness, no damage done. The male supervisor did indeed behave improperly, but she is a sharp girl and managed it very well. Hidden memories of awkward incidents emerge in your mind, but you push them aside and focus on the situation at hand. You reassure her and quietly plan the best course of action, to talk to the right people, to stop this, to prevent the next one. In a few days, you get to hear a few more stories about the same guy, so you take action. Then it’s over, all the young ladies are safe and the only thing left is the bliss you feel.

It is an incredible feeling to have that much of trust and confidence that I have received from the WITSEC mentees over the last five years. I am deeply honoured and moved by their faith in me and my abilities as a mentor. This is the biggest gift I have received from being a WITSEC mentor. And I will try to do my best not to fail.

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